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A 5G network is coming and Māori deserve a share

A 1999 Waitangi Tribunal report said Māori have rights to the radio spectrum, what we know as the 2G, 3G and 4G mobile networks. The Crown disagreed. Now, 20 years on from the original claim, the government has the opportunity to right past wrongs when it makes its 5G allocation.

Next year will mark 20 years since my mother, Rangiaho Everton, took the Crown to the Waitangi Tribunal over its refusal to recognise Māori ownership of radio spectrum, aka 4G currently, which is the life blood of the mobile industry. It’s true back in 1999 when we stood before the Tribunal to tell them how important the radio spectrum would be for Māori, Google was not even a year old, smart phones hadn’t been invented, and Steve Jobs was just a wee Apple compared to Microsoft’s giant empire, and here in Aotearoa we were only making calls using 2G. Twenty years on and how things have changed.

Not only have mobile phones become a critical tool, we rely on broadband-enabled devices for just about everything, the Māori economy included. But the Crown wasn’t about to let us have a share in that, and clearly spelled out they were the only “partner” who owned the rights to radio spectrum, despite existing even when Kupe arrived in Aotearoa thousands of years ago.

The result of the Wai 776 claim? Well we won, with the Tribunal by majority agreeing that iwi had a ‘prior interest’ in radio spectrum. In other words, it was a natural resource that Māori, who are Treaty partners, have equal rights to, just like the rivers, flora and fauna, seabed and foreshore… well, we know how that one panned out.

The Crown refused to concede and negotiate a fair and equitable outcome, choosing instead to facilitate a number of half measures that have consistently failed to deliver anything of substance. Reading between the lines, they didn’t want to set a precedent that modern resources like spectrum could be owned by Māori.

Instead the Crown created a charitable trust known as the Māori Spectrum Trust, which later became Te Huarahi Tika Trust and gave it a one-off payment of $5m. It was a way to keep the Māori MPs happy at the time with a gift of blankets and muskets, so to speak. The money was used to enter into a commercial relationship and shareholding in telco 2degrees, and the right to purchase 3G spectrum. Later, the initial 2degrees shareholding was restructured into a new shareholding in Trilogy, the parent company of 2degrees.

As the son of Rangiaho Everton, who did not envisage this outcome, I have stayed committed to fighting for Māori rights to the radio spectrum under Article 2 of the Treaty. I choose not to be involved in the Trust set up by the government, as I saw it as the Crown’s way of undermining our claim. Instead I chose to remain a claimant with Wai 776 after my mother died and later Wai 2224, a combined spectrum claim. I have continued to develop technology projects that demonstrate the potential uses of radio spectrum, with my latest initiative establishing a 5G rural-based test network in the Manawatū to show Māori have the technical capacity and vision to use radio spectrum and build value for their communities.

The Crown needs to change its own dictatorial approach to settling this claim and instead share what is absolutely our entitlement. By allowing Māori to partner in this valuable resource we can become masters of our destiny to create change and make an impact within this ever-evolving technological world.

In saying that, I do remain optimistic that 20 years on the Crown will do the right thing this time round as we approach the impending auction for 5G radio spectrum. Communications Minister Kris Faafoi, who has taken over from Clare Curran, is in the driving seat for this portfolio and has advised the mobile telcos that 5G allocation is still on track for early 2020.

However, he has indicated that there are some issues to get through “to get it to that stage”, with such issues including “not insignificant” iwi expectations established during the process for allocation of 4G spectrum. These not insignificant iwi expectations are in fact “very significant” iwi expectations.

However this pans out and whatever the Crown are willing to negotiate, Māori should be ready to make the most of the opportunity that 5G brings to Aotearoa. 5G capability is considered crucial for the wide take up of automated services such as driverless cars, Virtual/Augmented Reality and smart technologies that can monitor and manage everything from industrial services to farm machinery and home energy technologies.

Māori are a young demographic who are technologically savvy. Māori businesses are looking to invest in technology enterprises, particularly those that can deliver international opportunities and are aware of the changes that are coming in the future for employment. The past employment changes have divided Māori communities, and 5G could do the same if Māori aren’t part of the drivers of this change.

Māori are still under represented in the industry and telcos like Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees need to stop saying Māori are an important and respected partner in one breath, and failing to acknowledge that Māori have absolute rights in the spectrum with the next. At worst they could be seen as complicit in the unlawful confiscation of natural resources, surely a breach of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and at best be accused of putting people before profit.

Which brings me to why my mum took the claim originally. She believed that spectrum would be more important than cash. For her it was an assertion of tino rangatiratanga against the Crown, that assumed it had sole rights when it doesn’t. Like land, it was part of the Māori natural estate, and there was no room in her mind to give ownership up because there was an obligation to pass it on to the next generation as a taonga. It would be the foundation of a whole new economy once our people were trained and building new businesses. Twenty years on, now is the right time to honour her vision and for the Crown to do the right thing and uphold Māori rights, because the last time I looked it was called a partnership, not a dictatorship.

Graeme Everton (Ngāti Raukawa ki Te Tonga, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) is an advocate for increasing the participation of Māori in the technology sector. He established Aotearoa’s first open Internet of Things (IoT) research network using Weightless LPWAN technology and plans to launch a rural 5G pilot network.

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